“Take a minute to notice what you’re arriving with,” said 5Rhythms teacher Amber Ryan as she started the Sweat Your Prayers class today with a long, attenuated period of tonal music. I found a spot on the floor in the northeast corner of the studio, nearest to the home of the late Gabrielle Roth—the founder of the 5Rhythms practice. As the music unfolded, Amber also encouraged us to set an intention for our dance today, and to offer as many prayers as occurred to us during the dance. Instantly, a flurry of prayers arose, ending with the simplest and most complex of prayers—a wish for self love.
I lay on back, and drew my legs gently in to my torso, noting a sore back, and resolving to move gently to avoid injuring it further. On Friday, before Tammy’s Friday Night Waves class I had made the same resolution. That day, I had carried a heavy backpack all day, assisting with a field trip for my six-year-old son, Simon’s, camp, then traipsed around with him after. On the way home, he crashed his bike into the sidewalk and I had flung myself off my bike to run to his aid. My neck hurt, my back hurt.
Shortly after I began to move in Friday’s class, the pain disappeared completely. In fact, the neck pain was totally gone until yesterday afternoon when I got a $175 parking ticket—at which point the pain returned with a vengeance. The back pain stayed disappeared until a giant wave knocked Simon and me over at the beach, after we had been playing and diving over and through the waves for nearly an hour. Alone, I would just release and let the wave toss me around until I found which way was up, but Simon is an emerging swimmer; and (despite his protestations) I clung to his swim shirt, holding on as the wave overtook us, moving heavily into my back again during this maneuver (though we ended with tumbling smiles).
Today for the Sweat Your Prayers class I shared the elevator to the 5th floor dance studio with a friend. “How are you?” I asked. She said, “Well, I can finally make eye contact,” and explained that she’d been very sad recently. “I did wonder when I saw you on Friday if there might be something going on.” I had danced up to her, usually a joyful encounter, but she kept her eyes down, her head tilted forward. I got the message immediately that she wanted privacy and moved to give her the space she seemed to need.
There is so much information in the way we use our eyes. Early in my dance career, I thought it would be rude to make direct eye contact with other dancers, like it would be an intrusion, and might break the aesthetic trance they were immersed in. Now, it is when I feel like I need to keep to myself that I avert my eyes. Or if for some reason I can’t or don’t want to invite someone in. Or if I am listening carefully to something that is going on inside. I note with interest that the people who partner the most seem also to be the people who make the most eye contact. Lately, I make gentle eye contact with everyone I encounter, even people I pass on the street. Some days, I feel like everyone in New York and I are in on a private joke, our eyes glittering with the juiciness of it.
After considerable time stretching in gentle circles, I attained my feet and began to move slowly through the room, staying out of my edges completely, especially the edges in my back. I set the intention to see everyone, saying silently, “I see you there; and I am grateful for it.” (A meditation adapted from a practice taught by the Zen master, Thich Nhat Hahn.) I looked up from my looping circles, meeting some eyes and not meeting others, but taking the time to notice each person. The point was not eye contact, but seeing, noticing and acknowledging the presences of the people in the room. The slow, thick music continued for some time as each of us found our individual ground, and as we established a ground as a class.
Pain did not disappear so much as fade from the front of my experience. I still felt a bit of tenderness in the back, but as I released into the wave it was a far-off echo. I marveled at this. Once, I was barely able to walk I was so gimped from dancing ferociously on the first day of a three-day workshop. Somehow I hobbled into the studio on day two, unable to imagine how I could possibly move. Miraculously, as soon as the music started, the experience of physical pain completely reversed. I spent the remaining two days alternating between soaring and flying; and the pain never returned. The biographer of Dipa Ma, a highly realized teacher in the Buddhist Vipassana tradition who did not begin meditation practice until after the age of 40, wrote that before learning to meditate, Dipa Ma experienced such intense physical and emotional pain—including a severe heart problem—that she could only drag herself to the monastery temple where she would practice meditation by crawling up the stairs. After learning meditation, she walked upright, free of pain.
This is not to stay that 5Rhythms practice always makes pain disappear, certainly the opposite has happened to me, too; but I am grateful and amazed for the times that pain has suddenly left me, and wonder about the mechanisms of pain’s disappearance.
Another related example occurs to me. I have had the experience on many occasions that I have been on a chilly beach or other inspiring outdoor site practicing sitting meditation. I might meditate for an hour or more in these cases. Immediately after I decide that I am “done” meditating, the cold rushes in, the wind starts to bite, and I can no longer bear to be subject to the elements. What would it be like if, like Dipa Ma, I could sustain whatever was happening during the “official” period of meditation and generalize it to other areas of my life? And, significant to our consideration here, what are the internal and external factors at play when pain totally disappears as soon as I step in to the dance? (In other words, how can I get me some more of that!)
Once the long, slow arriving began to transform, the class picked up like a windstorm. As Amber told us at the end, she led us through four consecutive mini-waves in the two-hour class. (In contrast, most two-hour waves classes feature just two waves, separated by a break between the two.)
I noticed that I often decide to hold myself back in a given rhythm before charging on to the next one, especially with Flowing. Today, I wasn’t always aware of which rhythm we were in. I thought I really needed to work on something in Staccato; and when I finally let myself leave Flowing and move into Staccato, it seemed like I barely registered Staccato as Staccato before we were moving into Chaos.
The big, nasty parking ticket the day before gave me some insight into aspects of Staccato that I need to repair. I was on a beach trip to celebrate my friend’s birthday and she suggested her favorite beach. We saw a line of cars parked on the side of the road. Also, farther down, a red sign that said, “No Standing.” My friend went to ask the people in a car ahead of us if they knew it was a legal place to park. “We’ve never been here before actually. But they can’t tow all of us!” was their jocular response. Though squeamish, I wanted to honor my friend’s birthday wish; and we gathered our things for the long walk to Fort Tilden Beach. Returning a few hours later, though I was happy to find that the car had not been towed, my smile faded seconds later when I found a prison-orange parking ticket crammed under the driver’s side windshield wiper. Two separate violations were checked—totaling $175.
I knew it was a bad idea. I got the message from my body. My friend would not have cared at all if I said, “This is not a good idea. Let’s go to the other beach instead.” Instead, perhaps influenced by an internalized voice of someone who was close to me for a long time, I wanted so much to be NOT controlling that I overdid it. I knew the best course of action, but I swallowed it. The problem was not so much about having the confidence to speak, as it was about having the confidence to own my knowledge and intuition, instead of talking myself out of it for some stupid identity reason. Not just getting the message, but clearing the channel into proper expression—the skillful application of Staccato.
Lately, I have been considering the continuum between following what feels like intuition and fully taking on each rhythm as it comes, even when it seems counter-intuitive. Since today I often didn’t know which rhythm we were in, the only thing I could do was move with what felt right.
Although I have fallen in love with Flowing and with the ground in recent years, sometimes the mandate of finding the ground feels like a heavy responsibility. I know that if I don’t take the time to really find the ground—what is a better way to put this? I know if I don’t take the time to fully arrive in my body and in my senses, and take the time to slow down and open my awareness to how my own body relates with the environment I exist in—that it is not responsible to move on to another rhythm. That would be to risk causing harm. The ground—and I mean ground in this broad sense—is what protects you and the people around you. Until you find the ground, as Jonathan Horan, Gabrielle Roth’s son and the current holder of the 5Rhythms lineage said, “There is no point in moving on.” I’m not sure why, for me, sometimes, I make it into a “should,” rather than just receiving it as a blessing. It’s kind of like being in a conversation and just waiting to get your point in, rather than patiently listening to the other person’s words. Committing to finding the ground first even when I want to charge ahead to Staccato and to Chaos is an example of taking on the rhythms and experimenting with resisting my automatic responses, rather than always going with what feels comfortable. I think the trick is to distinguish between the pull of conditioned responses and the wisdom of intuition—a key distinction that will be different in every new set of circumstances.
Chaos—off and on—as it came, was delightful today. Continuing to stay out of my edges, I was as totally released as I can be at this time. We are often taught that Chaos is a fusion of Flowing and Staccato; and today my version of Chaos was much closer to Flowing, though without any of its weight. As we moved into Lyrical, I noticed not only the friend I had seen in the elevator crying, but many others crying, too. Though I avoided the deep arcing bows into the ground that I so love, I found glorious flight, high onto my toes, twittering and soaring, at once quirky and extended, aloft, majestic.
I stepped into a smiling dancer who is new to me and started to cry myself, like so many in today’s class. The fronts of her shoulders were exceptionally open. I tried on her gesture, and realized how much you have to open the front shoulders to release the heart. I continued to experiment with the generous arm and shoulder gestures that were inspired by this brief dance for the rest of the class. I also noticed that my diaphragm, which is a part of my body where I typically hold stuck energy, was released today. That spot has not fully let in air for a very long time, but today it was open, clean.
There was something of a pause after one of the Stillnesses; and I began to move in circles with a friend. Amber marked the start of this wave, beginning an instruction with, “As the end becomes the beginning again…” Both of us spun, moving more quickly than much of the honey-slow room. Her spine undulated, released in all directions. Collectively, the exchange went up several notches and we both broke into open-mouthed smiles as our spins began to find weight and we stepped in and out, behind and around, still moving in unending circles. As the song shifted toward Staccato, my friend moved to the other side of the room. Smiling, I followed her for one more pass. As Flowing transitioned to Staccato, I stepped into the field of another friend, very close, extremely gently. We found a tiny, timeless pocket of Stillness, breathing so fully it seemed breathless, sharing a minute portal; then we each spun back into the collective field.
Amber invited us to return to the intention that we set at the beginning as the class drew to a close, the room joyful, moving out of a drum-heavy Hindu chant. In the final phase of Stillness, I moved unselfconsciously, silently enacting an energetic Buddhist practice that feels like home for me.
Amber concluded the class with a ritual (one of her great strengths as a teacher). We sat in a large circle, then Amber asked us to notice the person to our left and the person to our right. We then were told to hold our left hand facing up and our right hand facing down, so they lined up with our neighbors’ hands, without actually touching. We sat there, receiving and offering, generating energy and filtering everything through the heart, for a few minutes.
Self love seemed more available. Pain seemed unimportant. The world seemed workable. My heart felt full. The circle dissolved, the class dissolved.
In the hall, I saw the friend I had taken the elevator with before class who shared that she had been terribly sad. She was smiling even as she pulled a clean shirt over her head, shining, apparently pain free, or at least having a break from it.
“Sweat your prayers, dance your pain and move on.” –Gabrielle Roth
August 22, 2016, NYC
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
Heat lightning ripped through the grey-purple sky as I was driving to the Friday Night Waves class. Looking down my Brooklyn street to the East River a bolt jagged to the right and down, next to a looming metal crane. Crossing the blue expanse of the Manhattan Bridge, lightning danced in fractured lines on both sides of me. I felt sure the sky would explode with rain at any moment, though the clouds only managed to squeeze out a few frustrated drops.
In the week leading up to the class and in the days following, the entire city wilted. Even bodies usually kept concealed have emerged and the edges of our garments have crept toward their seams. I have been doing errands in a bra and skirt, for example; and I did yoga today in a bathing suit. My parents came to visit and we all had a slumber party in the one air conditioned room of the apartment. Nearly everyone has a similar dominant experience; and the heat is the main topic of conversation everywhere. I love the feeling of shared challenge and the remarkableness of it, but it has definitely been intense.
A few days before the class, I had a dream in which I knew that I was dying. Some of my friends were going on a bike ride in the heat. Though I was tempted to join, I opted to conserve my energy instead and write notes to everyone I love. Lately, I have felt a generalized dissatisfaction, like I should be doing something other than what I am doing, like I am craving something that I can’t quite pinpoint. I had a painful insight that when I get edgy with my six-year-old son, Simon, because he is taking too long to do a task, the root of my edginess is really a fear of failure. Fear that if I waste time, I will fail to create markers of my experience and identity. That I will die anonymous and therefore succumb completely to death—total annihilation. The dream seemed to re-set my priorities, and I experienced a deepening of meditation practice. I remembered, if only briefly, that now is my only hope.
I hadn’t realized that Tammy would be away this week; but I was happy to see Kierra Foster Ba at the teacher’s table in her place. The air conditioners were on, but it was HOT. Seriously hot. Again, like many, I wore less clothing than usual. Stepping in, I bowed to the room and to the practice, then found a spot on the floor to stretch. I was quickly called to movement, casting into curving, arcing gestures. I found myself doing my current version of breakdancing—athletic circling, rising and falling, putting as much weight on my hands as on my feet, moving in unending circles and arcs.
I would have thought that breakdancing would appear in Staccato, as I see it as edgy and expressive, but for me it has only ever appeared in Flowing. I recall an episode that happened not long after I started dancing the 5Rhythms—at a gallery event that turned into an all-night dance party. One of the biggest obstacles I faced in the beginning of my 5Rhythms path was that I was painfully constricted—trying very hard not to be too big, too unruly, too attention-getting—trying to keep a lid on my explosive inner Chaos. Having just fallen in love with 5Rhythms, I danced every bit as gigantic as I felt. And everyone else did, too! I realized that it is possible that dancing every inch of my dance (not to be confused with dancing gigantic just to get everyone’s attention) could give everyone else permission to dance every inch of their dance, too. A moment from the gallery dance party that lives delightfully in my memory was when I did the worm across the entire length of the gallery, jumping to my feet in peals of laughter at the opposite wall, amongst friends, who also delightfully trotted out their favorite moves.
Taking to my feet, I flowed through the room with the intention of seeing everyone in attendance. I thought of a man I met earlier in the day in downtown Brooklyn. He sat on the sidewalk, with a money-request-cup and a sign that listed the important events of his life. “Father died. Grandmother died…” There was also a copy of a newspaper article, “Boy Survives Fall Out of 6th Story Building.” “Are you the boy that fell out the window?” I asked. He looked at me and nodded and his words began to tumble out. I realized how much he wanted to be seen, and thought about how true that is for most of us. Wanting to be seen. Really seen. Not just looked at. Holding my brand new baby niece, I thought about that fundamental human wish again, as she opened her tiny eyes and in just a few moments of concentrating her tiny baby gaze, seemed to see all of me, everything that is important about me, completely.
Flowing lead to Staccato before long. I noted that my right foot had a slight flatness, in comparison to its usual articulation, but it didn’t stop me from jumping into partnership after partnership—including with one lanky friend who always challenges me to stretch upward and into the farthest reaches of my limbs.
My top lip curled ever so slightly in response to an outburst of yelling from one corner of the dance floor. Kierra picked up the microphone right away and said, “This is a spiritual practice. There is no talking.” I am often impressed by Kierra’s non-didactic approach, and on this occasion I was just as impressed by her pointedness.
Chaos in the first wave found me energetic, spinning, loose. Kierra played a track with tribal chaos rhythms mixed with a riff from Buena Vista Social Club; and I responded with enthusiasm and vigor despite the fact that I was already drenched with sweat.
In the context of the current presidential campaign season, my father has been saying, “In public life, there are two kinds of people: those who want to be somebody great, and those who want to do great things.” This quote came to mind as Kierra began to speak in the interlude between the first and the second wave of the class. “This is not a performance,” she said. “This is a spiritual practice. It’s for you. Not for anyone else. I challenge you to move beyond your self-consciousness, to not worry at all about how you look.” I don’t think she was talking about self-consciousness just as shyness (as it often implies) but, rather, self-consciousness in the sense that you are very preoccupied with how others are seeing you, perhaps losing the center and depth of your own experience in the process.
Kierra stepped forward to demonstrate through moving what a 5Rhythms wave looked like for her in that moment. She moved with grace and vigor as she explained to the eight brand new dancers in the room (and to the rest of us) that the gateway to Flowing is the feet; and that Flowing is characterized by unending, circular movement. She began to move more sharply and to forcefully exhale. “Staccato is really the opposite of Flowing. It is directional, angular. It is a good place to practice having good boundaries.”
At this point, Kierra digressed productively, encouraging us to fully take on the 5Rhythms, “especially if you have a strong will, and you always want to do things your way. For example, you might want to be in the beat, but it’s Flowing—so you flow; and see what’s there, in your flow. See what’s there for you.” The suggestion to fully take on the 5Rhythms is, in my experience, incredibly useful advice. In addition to Kierra, I have heard this theme emphasized by 5Rhythms teachers countless times, including Amber Ryan, Peter Fodera, and certainly by Tammy Burstein. There are times that it is skillful to track the minute shifts of energy that take place moment by moment and to follow every fleeting impulse, but more often, part of the discipline of practice—the seeds that eventually yield the harvest—is to take on the 5Rhythms fully, with the intention of being curious and seeing what comes. It is especially in the receptivity or resistance to a given rhythm that we mine for insights—information we would never uncover if we were always to simply follow our immediate, conditioned impulses.
Demonstrating the requisite release of the head in Chaos, Kierra said something I had never heard before: that we have some sort glands both in our foot pads and in our necks that release endorphins, which is one reason circling the head and neck are important in several religious traditions—such as Sufi whirling. This made perfect sense to me, as I have often been flooded with delightful natural chemicals in the throes of Chaos.
The release of my neck has been one of life’s little miracles. When I first began 5Rhythms, my neck was totally locked. At the end of a yoga class, it was agony to lay prone on the floor because it was so pinched. Instructors often asked, “Are you ok like that? Really?” Gradually, thanks to the 5Rhythms, my neck began to free itself. As it becomes more and more free, moving sometimes with alarming intensity in the rhythm of Chaos, so too, does my mind seem to grow more free. Whenever I feel discouraged by lack of progress on my path, the relative freedom of my neck reminds me of how far I have traveled, how ripe I am for catharsis, and how readily it comes.
Continuing with the litany of the rhythms, the rhythm of Lyrical, Kierra said, “Will look different for everyone.” All the rhythms will look different for everyone! But Lyrical in particular, since in Lyrical we let go of the letting go (of Chaos) and our innate patterns begin to emerge.
Kierra shared an example that Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice, used to offer at workshops. Gabrielle said she would occasionally be washed over with sadness, even when she was in the throes of joy. Over time, she was able to locate the energy of this particular sadness to her wrist. Finally, after working with the sadness for a long period, she got the memory connected to it. As Kierra put it, “She was very young, pre-verbal even, and she had been told to wave good-bye to her father. She was bereft because she didn’t understand that he was coming back. She thought she was waving good bye to her father forever.”
As she moved on to demonstrate Stillness, Kierra said, “Sometimes when people first come to the 5Rhythms, they see a big, fun dance party. And it is that! It is that. But it is also so much more.” Kierra explained that once you faithfully go through all of the rhythms, eventually you will get to a trance. She recalled something Gabrielle would often say, “The body is begging bowl for spirit.” In that place, according to your beliefs and experiences, you will be moving with something much larger than yourself. For example, for Kierra, she becomes aware that she is moving along with her ancestors. This is very much true for me, too. It is in Stillness that I realize I have an entire spirit entourage, that I am not alone in this existence. I have often heard Kierra talk about being interested in “going deep” in practice, and as I reflect on her comments now I wonder if it is precisely this field she has been pointing toward.
Like nearly everyone in the room, I ended the night in a sweaty puddle on the floor that has held me literally hundreds of times. Kierra concluded the class with one of Gabrielle’s most famous quotes, and one of my personal favorites,
“Do you have the discipline to be a free spirit?”
August 14, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC
Image from derrickniehaus.deviantart.com.
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.
I caught Tammy’s eye as I stepped into her Friday Night Waves class after nearly a month away. Smiling and meeting her gaze across the room, I tapped my heart with my right fist, then held my hands together in a gesture of excitement and gratitude, bowing as I passed through the door of the studio. The day was hot, with a heat index of 100. Even at 7.30pm, it was a delicious 96 degrees. Though I was only away for a few weeks, it felt like a homecoming; and I was overjoyed to encounter several longtime friends in the crowd.
I missed most of the Flowing part of the first wave; and the room was already moving toward Staccato when I joined the group. I swirled in, then lay on my back on the floor to help myself find the ground. Immediately, a smiling friend leaned over me and our arms united in cheerful, fluid movement. I know there are risks if I don’t ground myself in Flowing before moving on, but still I rose quickly to my feet, swept away by quirky, ardent movements in Staccato and then in Chaos.
Having spent nearly a month practicing individually on beaches and cliffs in southeast Ireland, I was incredibly grateful to step without hesitation or thought into partnership again and again. Dancing individually as I did in Ireland has deepened my practice and has given me insights that I could never find in community. At the same time, it is both revealing and engaging to move in partnership. I am beginning to think that I need both individual and community practice.
Tammy played a popping, crackling song in Lyrical that always makes me think of an old fashioned toy—the wooden person with jointed legs and arms who is bounced on a straight board. I let my arms go slack and fling themselves around as my feet touched down and were cast quickly back up again, much like the little dancing man toy (that to this day resides in a low drawer in the living room at my great grandparents’ house).
In a typical two-hour 5Rhythms waves class, we dance two “waves.” A “wave” is a structure that was designed (or perhaps described) by Gabrielle Roth, the creator of the 5Rhythms practice. A wave is what is created when we move through each of the five rhythms – Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness – in sequence.
Between the first and the second wave of the class, there is often spoken teaching. In this case, Tammy emphasized the rhythm of Flowing, connecting it to “instinctive wisdom.” She began by showing what Flowing is not by flitting about haphazardly for a few moments. I have occasionally noticed dancers moving with grim determination from site to site, or perhaps moving randomly, not noticing the different strains of gesture around them. Though in Flowing we are encouraged to keep moving our feet and not to get stuck in one spot, it seems, most certainly, that Flowing does not mean being non-committal, or moving around the room so quickly you slip out of any potential intimate exchange.
In some Buddhist teachings, a desirable concept is often paired with its “far enemy” and also with its “near enemy.” I love how this blogger explains the near enemy, “The near enemy is a kind of counterfeit of what we’re actually aiming for, and it’s unhelpful because while the genuine article helps free us from suffering, the counterfeit doesn’t.” (wildmind.org) For example, the far enemy of compassion is cruelty. The near enemy of compassion is pity (or is sometimes translated as grief). We might get tricked into thinking we are developing compassion, but the truth is that pity is not productive because it entrenches us more fully in our own ego, rather than opening us up to a broader experience of humanity—one of compassion’s hallmarks. As for 5Rhythms and Flowing, I guess you could say that the far enemy of Flowing would be non-movement. There are perhaps many near enemies of Flowing—but I would put distracted meandering high on the list.
Tammy spent much more time describing the field of what Flowing is, in its own form and as it gives rise to and is threaded through all of the other rhythms. Flowing, she said, is unselfconscious and intuitive—not thought about. She went on to say that we bring the instinctive wisdom of Flowing into all the other rhythms; and that all of the other rhythms are really just an extension of Flowing. In Staccato, we find the instinctive heart. We even bring that instinctive knowledge into Chaos. In Lyrical, we find fascination. In Stillness, grace.
Flowing was the rhythm that very much dominated for me during my recent trip to Ireland. Truthfully, it was all I could manage on some days. Dancing with the cliffs and the sea and the rocks, I remained in Flowing for long stretches before even a hint of transition to Staccato. I would then drop back into Flowing again and again even as the wave unfolded.
Fundamentally, the rhythm of Flowing is characterized by circular and fluid motion, energetic receptivity, and the relationship of feet, weight and body to the ground that holds us. 5Rhythms teacher Kierra Foster-Ba has said about Flowing, “Like any other animal, we get a lot of information from our feet.” For me, Flowing is an homage to the mother, a refuge, a touchstone. It is also a secret password, and a key that unlocks infinite doors.
Although for many years, I confess that I found Flowing too humble to merit keen interest, from the beginning it has been my most important teacher. In a workshop with one teacher, she rolled on the floor as she spoke, describing and demonstrating her passionate relationship to ground. She also talked about how it took her years to “find the ground,” and how much her practice opened up when she did. For me, it was only after years of working my way into the ground that the elusive rhythm of Lyrical finally began to up for me—a miracle I didn’t anticipate, but one that I welcomed with ecstatic gratitude.
Mild inertia oozed through me after Tammy’s talk. I had to leave class before the second wave because of a scheduling issue, but it wasn’t that sense of inertia that lingered on into the hot summer night. Rather, I left with the imprints of unbridled movement, drenched humidity and the joy that comes from stepping into space and finding a perfect partner, again and again.
July 24, 2016, Brooklyn, NYC
This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.